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For Immediate Release
Office of the Vice President
December 7, 2007
Vice President's Remarks to the Members of Veterans of Foreign Wars
National World War I Museum
Kansas City, Missouri
1:18 P.M. CDT
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Thank you all very much, and good afternoon. And Glen, I appreciate the introduction and the chance to be with all of you here today.
It's always a pleasure to be in Kansas City, a place I've visited many times over the years. When I come here I always think of one of my predecessors as Vice President, who also served as our 33rd President -- Harry S. Truman. He's credited, of course, for many words of wisdom, including the advice that "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog." (Laughter.) Just so you'll know, I've got two of them. (Laughter.)
Truman, of course, was a veteran of World War I, and rightly proud of his record in the field artillery in Europe, as a leader of Battery D -- a unit composed largely of men from Kansas City. They were involved in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, remembered as the largest action in American military history up until that time. In battle they reflected credit on themselves and on the United States Army.
For many years after the war, Truman remained a colonel in the Army Reserve. One day in the 1940s, while serving as a U.S. senator, he decided he wanted to go back on active duty and once again lead an artillery group. He shared this ambition with General George C. Marshall, who replied, "Senator, how old are you?" Truman said, "56." Marshall said, "You're too damn old. You'd better stay home." Five years later, Truman was President. Somebody asked Marshall what he'd say now if the Commander-in-Chief came back to him with the same question. Marshall said, "Well, I'd tell him the same thing -- only I'd be a little more diplomatic about it." (Laughter.)
Like all those who have lived in this area over many decades, Harry Truman was quite familiar with this memorial where we gather today. It's been here since the 1920s, and it's a fine tribute to all the Americans who served in the First World War. They were more than 2 million in number -- and according to news accounts, just three of our World War I veterans are still with us today in 2007. And of all the American soldiers who actually served in France on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, only one is left.
He is Frank Buckles, age nearly 107, who lives in West Virginia, but was born here in Missouri. A noble generation of American service members has now almost completely passed from the scene. But this memorial and museum give testimony to the enduring gratitude of our nation. We will never forget the service of our World War I veterans -- from Harry Truman, to Frank Buckles -- from those buried in France, to the Unknown Soldier at Arlington. Our nation honors them still, and we will remember their service forever.
Today, of course, is a special day of remembrance for the United States because it's the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. I'm told we have a Pearl Harbor survivor with us this afternoon -- a Navy Veteran, LeMarr Clifton. Welcome, sir. (Applause.)
Let me also thank the many other distinguished guests here today, including the VFW National Vice Commander, Glen Gardner; Brian Alexander, President of the National World War One Museum; Lieutenant Colonel William Fearn, of the 24th Marine Regiment in Kansas City; and two officers from Fort Leavenworth -- Colonel Timothy Weathersbee and Command Sergeant Major John Cross. And I want to recognize two very special guests: Donald Ballard and Roger Donlon -- war heroes and recipients of the Medal of Honor. (Applause.) We're extremely proud to have them here.
America is a country that keeps faith with the people of our military -- first when they wear the uniform, and then when they wear the proud title of veteran. Occasionally the political world needs to be reminded of its obligations to the military and to the veterans, and no one is better suited for that job than the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States. I have great admiration for this organization, for your tradition of advocacy, and the example of patriotism and service that VFW members provide for your fellow Americans. I'm pleased to be in your company today, and I bring respect and good wishes from the President of the United States, George W. Bush. (Applause.)
I speak to you, not just as Vice President, but as a citizen who had the honor of serving this nation as Secretary of Defense. I count my years in that office to be among the most rewarding of my career. To work with the men and women of our military, to witness their devotion to duty, to see their daily sacrifices they and their families make on behalf of the country -- all makes one even prouder to be an American. They embody the values of the land we love, and they uphold traditions of honor and skill that have kept this country free for more than 200 years.
At the Pentagon, I had the responsibility for their well-being. In my current office, I again have the privilege of serving with the President, who does not take our military for granted. And today I want to share some thoughts on what the Armed Forces are doing for us -- and, just as important, what the Armed Forces are entitled to expect from us in a time of war.
At this moment, in two theaters of the war on terror, American forces continue the fight against enemies that are as ruthless as they are determined. In Afghanistan, more than 15,000 Americans are serving beside more than 25,000 troops from allied countries. They are fighting a tough but -- they are fighting a tough but winning struggle against the Taliban and al Qaeda forces determined to drag Afghanistan back into the dark ages. Since their liberation six years ago, the Afghan people have embraced democracy, they've chosen their own leaders, and reclaimed their own destiny. The economy has doubled in size, human rights are respected, and girls are permitted to attend school. And that nation is no longer a sanctuary for the band of killers that struck the United States on September 11, 2001.
In Iraq, we have a similar mission. We're liberating a country to secure its freedom. We're aiding in the process of reconstruction and political reconciliation, as America has done for other friends in other times. And we're acting decisively against terrorists who hate our country and everything we stand for. These enemies are desperate to gain the resources and the technology to wage a devastating attack against the United States. And they are determined to gain a foothold from which to carry it out.
The ideological struggle that's playing out in the broader Middle East -- the struggle against radical extremists who have declared war on us -- will concern America for the remainder of our administration, and well into our future. But it's absolutely vital to the future security of the American people, and success in Iraq will be a turning point in the global fight against terror. An Iraq that is free, an Iraq able to govern itself and defend itself, will be an ally against the extremists, and a force for stability in a region that badly needs it.
This is a critical period in Iraq, as General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, backed up by a surge in American forces, carry out a new offensive strategy. It's an important point to emphasize that we're not just talking about more troops in Iraq, but about a new strategy to secure that country and to set the conditions for political reconciliation.
That strategy is working. Even though we have more troops carrying out more perilous missions -- that is, more engagements involving intense, close-in fighting -- our casualty rates are actually down. And while General Petraeus has made clear that al Qaeda remains a lethal enemy, many al Qaeda sanctuaries have been wiped out. More weapons caches have been seized and destroyed -- and some of these have been quite large. Most all of them would have been used to harm innocent Iraqis, and our own men and women in uniform.
One decisive element is that locals are getting into the fight. Anbar province, for example, was a place that some considered lost just a year ago. But people were sick of the violence, and repelled by the mindless and merciless actions of al Qaeda in Iraq. The tribes in Anbar now see al Qaeda as the enemy, and they've worked with Iraqi and American forces to drive the terrorists from their cities.
General Petraeus is using reinforcements from the surge to bring similar progress to other parts of Iraq. In Baghdad, for example, the security environment is significantly improved over what it was a year ago. American and Iraqi forces are patrolling and living among the people they protect, and that's helped to build confidence in the neighborhoods. So the locals, in turn, are more willing to provide good intelligence -- telling us where weapons are kept, where attacks are planned, where the enemy is hiding -- because they know we're there to help and that we won't leave them hung out to dry.
Now, with security improving, we expect Iraq's national government to press much harder in the work of national reconciliation, to match the kind of cooperation now taking place at the local and provincial level. We will continue, as well, our intensive effort to train Iraqi security forces so that over time, Iraqis can take the lead in protecting their own people. And as that happens, we'll be able to transfer even more security functions from American forces to the Iraqis.
As the commanders will tell you, there are still areas where it's tough going -- and in some of those, it is really tough. So the work goes on in Iraq. General Petraeus, he has said that operational environment is the most complex and challenging that he's ever seen. We're facing adversaries who deal in treachery, who hide in the shadows, and give no thought to the rules of war or even simple morality. And yet we're making progress, and the single most reliable element of our success is the skill and valor of the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States of America. (Applause.)
They do all that we ask of them, and they do it superbly -- and even if it involves long deployments, dangerous patrols, and having to carry heavy packs and body armor in 120-degree heat in the desert. They have soldiered on in every circumstance, stuck together -- as Americans always do.
Here at home, there is still debate about our mission in Iraq. Yet if there's one thing that can unite all Americans, it should be this: The people of our military should be given all the support, all the resources, and all the equipment they need to do the job we ask them to do for all of us. (Applause.)
There was a time not long ago when we had that kind of unity. Yet in the year 2007, we've seen something very different. Some members of Congress, in an effort to undermine the mission in Iraq, have decided to stop supporting the soldiers themselves. Last February -- some 10 months ago -- President Bush sent to Congress a detailed funding request to finance our operations in the global war on terror. His request included funding for combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, money to train up local security forces, funding for intelligence operations needed to protect forces on the battlefield. In addition, the President requested more money for medical care for wounded warriors, for equipment repair, for upgrades in the strategic readiness of the Army, and for the relief of refugees.
Congress's response to the President's request has been to withhold the funds altogether. Instead of taking sensible action, all year long some Congressional leaders have issued one threat after another: to de-fund the Iraq mission entirely; or to mandate an immediate pullout of American forces, regardless of conditions in the field; or to set arbitrary deadlines for withdrawal -- again, heedless of conditions on the ground, with no apparent concern for whether we succeed or fail.
Congress's approach to war funding has been irresponsible for three reasons. First, a retreat strategy is flatly contrary to our national interest. A precipitous American withdrawal from Iraq would invite chaos in that country. Locals who had allied themselves with our coalition and trusted the United States would be hunted down by al Qaeda and other extremists. Sectarian violence would explode, and outside influences would widen the conflict into a regional war. And Iraq could become a safe haven for terrorists and a staging ground for attacks against our nation and against our allies. A strategy of retreat would, therefore, undermine our efforts throughout the Middle East and heighten the danger that the extremists represent. It would validate Osama bin Laden's belief that Americans don't have the will to carry out this difficult mission. And it would leave high and dry those millions of people who have counted on the United States to keep its commitments.
Second, it is not the business of the United States Congress to micromanage military strategy. We simply cannot afford a situation in which the Commander-in-Chief sends in forces with a clear mission, and then Congress steps in to tie the hands of our commanders on the field.
Third, Congress is making a partisan struggle out of an issue that should be nonpartisan. I don't believe the people of the nation want Congress to use defense appropriations as a bargaining chip in some kind of political debate. (Applause.) The men and women of the Armed Forces are not serving as Republicans, they're not serving as Democrats. They're serving as Americans who love their country and who have volunteered to defend it. Their care and protection should be a bipartisan national priority, not a means for anyone to score political points.
The matter has become urgent. I was at the Pentagon just last week with the President, for briefings in the Tank with Secretary Gates, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mullen, and the other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And it's clear that Congress's delay is going to work a detriment of the force. Some might say that since this is just government, you can move money around inside the Defense Department until Congress can get it back together. It doesn't work that way. In fact, the law limits how much money can be moved from one account to another.
Secretary Gates has already notified Congress that he'll transfer money from accounts used to fund other activities of the military to pay for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But after that, no more money can be moved. So he's directed the Army and Marine Corps to draw plans to lay off civilian employees, to terminate contracts, and to prepare military bases for reduced operations. These are contingency steps being forced on the Pentagon by a congressional delay that is now in its eleventh month.
I don't need to explain to members of the VFW that some things are more important than politics. I know you care about the well-being of our troops, because you've been in their shoes. And you have the kind of conviction and credibility to make a strong case on their behalf. The President and I want to work with Congress to do the right thing on defense appropriations, and we welcome everybody's support. We should not waste another day in funding the troops. It's time for Congress to pass a clean bill to give the military all it needs, with no strings attached. (Applause.)
Supporting the military is part of a long list of unfinished business still pending before the Congress. Leaving aside all the domestic priorities yet to be achieved, Congress also has more on the agenda when it comes to winning the war on terror.
This summer the President and I received a National Intelligence Estimate on the continuing threat to the homeland. That report finds a "persistent and evolving" threat from terror groups, in particular al Qaeda. Their objective, as that National Intelligence summary puts it, is to seek "prominent political, economic and infrastructure targets with a goal of producing mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction, significant economic aftershocks, and/or fear among the U.S. population."
We know, from tough experience and from ongoing intelligence activities, how the terrorist enemy aims to proceed -- by plotting in secret, by slipping into the country, exploiting any vulnerability that they can find, and by using every form of technology they can get their hands on. This makes the war on terror as urgent and time-sensitive as any task our nation has known. As the Director of National Intelligence, Admiral McConnell, said recently, "The time needed to develop a terrorist plot, to communicate it around the globe, and to put it into motion, has been drastically reduced. The time line is no longer a calendar, it's a watch."
It's a relief this country has been able to prevent further attempts to attack us here at home since 9/11. Nobody can guarantee that we won't be struck again. But the fact that we've been this safe is not an accident of history or just a stroke of luck. It's because of a broad-based, unrelenting effort to protect the country; an effort set in motion and led forward by the President and by the tremendous work of some outstanding individuals in the Armed Forces, in the intelligence services, and in law enforcement.
Our government has used every legitimate tool to counter the activities of an enemy that likely has cells inside the country. We've improved security arrangements and reorganized the intelligence community. We've worked closely with friends and allies to track terrorist activity. And, yes, we have surveilled and interrogated the enemy. We will continue to do so, and for good reason. With our country targeted by terrorists, our government has a pressing duty to find out the intentions and the movements of these killers before they can strike again.
That's a commitment President Bush has made. And to keep that commitment, our intelligence professionals need the proper tools and the authority to collect good information. So we're asking Congress to take a look at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. FISA sets out the legal framework to monitor terrorist communications while protecting the civil liberties of the American people. Unfortunately, the law is out of date. In August, Congress passed legislation to help modernize FISA. That bill closed critical gaps, allowing us to collect important foreign intelligence and to help keep our country safe. The only problem is the new law expires February 1. There's no point in putting a sunset provision on such vital legislation. To protect the American people, Congress needs to pass a new FISA law, and they need to make it permanent.
Protecting America and our friends, and advancing the hopes for peace in our world, also depends on preventing the spread of deadly technologies. President Bush has made it clear that America will do its part. In the case of Iran, we're dealing with a country that is still enriching uranium and remains a leading state sponsor of terrorism -- and that is a cause of great concern to the United States. Our concern is shared with the international community, including the key powers seeking to solve the Iranian nuclear issue in the United Kingdom, Russia, China, France, and Germany. Together, we must keep the pressure on Iran to stop enriching uranium and to come clean about all its nuclear activities, past and present. Not everyone understands the threat of nuclear proliferation, in Iran or elsewhere. But we and our allies do understand the threat, and we have a duty to prevent it.
Ladies and gentlemen, these are decisive times in the life of America and for people far beyond. Six years ago, we began a long struggle to preserve our freedom and to defend our way of life. And today, with many tasks at hand and with boots on the ground 6,000 miles away, the history of that struggle is still in the making. I, for one, am confident in the outcome. Americans are not the sort to wait on events, or to live at the mercy of the violent. We do not sit and hope for the best; we can see a better day for ourselves and for all humanity, and we strive to achieve it.
We've shown a watching world that we are a good and a just nation, secure in our ideals, fearless in their defense, and willing to sacrifice greatly for the cause of long-term peace and freedom. This cause is bigger than the quarrels of party and the agendas of politicians; and at this hour in our history, it's the cause of America -- and the best among us are fighting and sacrificing for its success. And if we in Washington, all of us, can only see our way to work together, then the outcome is not in doubt. We will press on in our mission, and we will achieve victory.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
END 1:40 P.M. CDT